Oh empathy, empathy, where art thou?
Help me, Adam Smith, for Business Has No Flag.
Recently I’ve noticed a particular conservative response to complaints regarding the lack of empathy for today’s inequality and the resultant gap between the rich and the rest: middle class, working class and working poor; said response being the occasional conservative reference to Adam Smith and his Magnus Opus: The Wealth Of Nations. A book I happen to be reading on my Kindle; in places re-reading the unfamiliar18th century English, I must admit, to retain focus. And I have a ways to go.
Today, the best that I can make of the rather cynical conservative point being made is of Smith’s theory of free-market capitalism, featuring freedom and/or liberty as it relates to self-interest. All of which comes down to, then and now, in a mistrust of too much government.
But if you have the patience to read the following to the bitter end you’ll find that, having done a wee bit of reading, I’ve concluded today’s conservatives are full of bull.
I’ll come back to Smith, but first some personal notes:
The empathetic state of mind is the positive bond in all social connections. The remarkable biotechnology of our brain provides a pathway to a conscious life, allowing us to observe a universe that is just one of many in the cosmos, the unfathomable whole of which remains withheld according to our intellectual limits. And what little we observe of the cosmos does not observe back, always remaining dispassionately autistic in the extreme. As western religions fade into a black hole of history we emerge alone. When faced with injustice in this total absence of empathy, like Job, at what narcissistic entity does one shake one’s fist? Apart from the notion of other planetary life forms, on whom or what do we depend?
The inescapable answer is, each other. We learn, under the heading of self-interest, that the existence of a truly moral life is merely one-half of our social evolution, excessive greed being the other. One might see this as a great divide, yet too often it is a swirl of political oil and water, never quite blending, yet sometimes one bleeding into the other, blurring perceptions. “Good” and “evil” can be convenient words for the sake of discussion, as when a good person risks his life to save another, while an evil person tortures. But when superstition conjures spirit enemies in some mythical battle of good versus evil, intelligent thought dissolves.
Apart from pedophilia, inquisitions, stoning and decapitations, religion as part of our evolution has embedded positive moral values into our various western cultures, yet today when left to our own devices, many of us in the name of self-interest have difficulty achieving and maintaining a totally ethical life. Self-interest, a faculty of survival and the central force that drives all forms of life on Earth, is in human beings the most cleverly and cynically rationalized attribute when the greed of the One Percent overwhelms empathy.
When President Obama nominated Sonia M. Sotemayor for the Supreme Court, he described empathy as an important virtue for a Justice to possess. His use of the word was attacked by conservatives as wimpy left-wing thinking. The president’s opponents insisted that “Justice” must be blind, not to be hindered by empathy or, let us say, shared feelings for others. Much of this reaction is the result of the far right belief—mistaken but convenient—that Adam Smith’s Wealth Of Nations was flat out in favor of business libertarianism, with no reservations whatsoever. Smith (1723-1790), a Scottish moral philosopher, published the Wealth Of Nations in 1776, which to this day, while considered the initial modern work of economics, it is also referred to as the book (beyond reading quotations) that no one actually reads.
While I admit to a serious lack of economic scholarship, please bear with me:
Smith’s libertarian approach, I believe, was in fact his opposition to the European mercantilism of kings, in practice during the 16th to 18th centuries. Or in today’s parlance, any state’s total control of its economy, especially as it involved the elimination of free trade. Add to that the gradual replacing of barter with coinage of equal worth; which in itself was a convenience, but was followed by the tricky-dick kings’ gradual reduction of the gold and silver in the coinage, in effect social theft from on high.
Think of this year’s box of cereal being the same size as last year’s, and costing the same, but containing a lot less cereal. Sorry. Not a great simile, I know, but on a grander scale you get the idea.
Next, in regard to business and labor, Smith’s somewhat neutral description of the way-of-the-economic-world in the 18th Century:
“It was not by gold or silver, but by labor, that all the wealth of the world was originally purchased; and its value, to those who possess it, and want to exchange it for some new productions, is precisely equal to the quantity of labor which it can enable them to purchase or command.
Wealth, as Mr. Hobbes says, is power. But the person who either acquires, or succeeds to a great fortune, (being generous here) does not necessarily acquire or succeed to any political power, either civil or military….”
Though, he admits, the person may. (Mine: and more often than not said person does succeed in acquiring enormous power, in whatever form). But Smith goes on:
“His fortune is greater or less, precisely in proportion to the extent of this power, or to the quantity of other men’s labor, or, what is the same thing, of the produce of other men’s labor.”
He continues in depth about the inordinate and unrelenting self-interest of the eighteenth-century men of business; put one way:
“The interest of those who live by profit are always different from, and even opposite to, that of the public good.”
He could have written that last week.
Contrary to the opinion of today’s conservatives, Smith believed that no one man builds his business without the help of his workers; and further believed that empathy was an excellent strategy in business. When he wrote his Magnus Opus the word Empathy was not yet in the English language, so Sympathy was his standard for that which underlay any concept of social fairness. Said another way: Shared feelings. So sympathy was essential to his moral sensibility. Noteworthy here was Smith’s opposition to slavery—at the time a decidedly unpopular position.
He wrote, “…by changing places in fancy with the sufferer, that we come either to conceive or to be affected by what he feels . . .” Pretty un-business-like touchy-feely, I think. No?
And yet the following generations of far-to-the-right conservatives interpret Smith’s notion of rational self-interest as a cost/benefit allowance of zero empathy while declaring, as in current jargon, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
How good has that been since 2008?
Said conservatives refer to, and give praise to, Smith’s following words as the natural order of things (while telling progressives, don’t fight the inevitable):
“Men of inferior wealth combine to defend those of superior wealth in the possession of their property (Think employees & employers) in order that men of superior wealth may combine to defend them in the possession of theirs. All the inferior shepherds and herdsmen feel that the security of their own herds and flocks depends upon the security of those of the great shepherd or herdsman; that the maintenance of their lesser authority depends upon that of his greater authority, and that upon their subordination to him depends his power of keeping their inferiors in subordination to them….”
Just the way it is folks. And:
“…every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it… he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.”
The “end” suggesting self-interest can result in public benefit. Or a terrible opposite since the public interest, as stated above, is neither here nor there. The invisible hand is adored by all conservatives, as it was Smith’s metaphor to explain the self-regulating marketplace.
Modern far-right libertarian interpretation: regulation destroys economic health.
So after all that, you conservatives who suffer a convenient lapse of recall, pay heed, here, please, while Adam Smith presents a rather strong modification of the above to reveal his concern for labour in these disapproving words:
“Masters (think corporations) are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform, combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate…sometimes enter(ing) into particular combinations (think conspiracies) to sink the wages of labour even below this rate…with the utmost silence and secrecy…the workman yield(ing), though severely felt by them….” (And when workers complain), “the masters…never cease to call aloud for the assistance of the civil magistrate, and the rigorous execution of those laws…against the…servants, labourers and journeymen.”
(For today, think: the Fix Is In, regarding private security goon enforcers of corporate interests in the not too-distant past, plus favored reactionary judges; and today’s favorite well-bribed lawmakers–better known to us as our sterling do-nothing congressional representatives, themselves having been guilty of insider trading.
And Smith then warned of a business “conspiracy against the public or in some other contrivance to raise prices.” Warned of monopolies creating higher prices, “…which can be squeezed out of the buyers.”
Therefore it is quite apparent that Smith praised healthy self-interest, to be free of the rule of kings in the name of liberty and prosperity, while clearly fearing an excess of unfettered greed in un-monitored self-interest, seeing it as a major danger to society and social justice. Is this latter part too touchy-feely? Too empathetic?
“Business has no flag” is an important statement coined by me and not delivered lightly, which I’ll return to.
Meanwhile, it is ironic that today’s conservative CEOs have utilized Smith’s 18th century belief that empathy was an excellent strategy in business. (What Smith meant: give the worker a fare shake and he will return it in full). Today on the other hand, with business worried about its poor reputation, Smith’s original intent is now somewhat altered: Creating clever touchy-feely methods in marketing by learning how to divine another’s state of mind, to put oneself in another’s shoes, to recognize people’s hopes and dreams, to empathize. Not entirely a bad thing, except when people are empathized into buying what they don’t really need, and offered wonky loan shark advances they can’t afford, to buy them–for instance houses–through the use of well-acted we’re-your-friends-and-neighbors commercials.
And in case you didn’t know this, the new term, expanding the notion of empathy, is “Emotional Intelligence.” Also referred to as “EQ.” Q meaning “Quotient.” Used as an addition or replacement for plain old “IQ,” since an unfeeling person with a soaring IQ can be an S.O.B., impeding leadership and bad for the sales floor. So now in the workplace: “Emotional Intelligence links strongly with concepts of love and spirituality: bringing compassion and humanity to work, and also to ‘Multiple Intelligence’ theory” which illustrates and measures the range of capabilities people possess, and the fact that everybody has a value.”
Not quite Adam Smith’s less-tricky-dick version of “sympathy.” Try this:
The U.S Air Force used the EQ to select recruiters, having found that the most successful recruiters scored high in emotional intelligence (empathy?)
Show those recruits your love, Sergeant.
I was once in the Army, folks, and what I recall is: Show no mercy! (With hindsight, for our own good, I think).
None of this takes into consideration the increased **sociopathic nature of politics and business, nor the often psychopathic CEO.
Quote from the Website: Barking Up The Wrong Tree:
“In 2005, Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon of the University of Surrey conducted a survey to find out precisely what it was that made business leaders tick. Board and Fritzon took three groups— business managers, psychiatric patients, and hospitalized criminals (both those who were psychopathic and those suffering from other psychiatric illnesses)— and compared how they fared on a psychological profiling test.
“Their analysis revealed that a number of psychopathic attributes were actually more common in business leaders than in so-called disturbed criminals— attributes such as superficial charm, egocentricity, persuasiveness, lack of empathy, independence, and focus— and that the main difference between the groups was in the more “antisocial” aspects of the syndrome: the criminals’ lawbreaking, physical aggression, and impulsivity dials (to return to our analogy of earlier) were cranked up higher. How can this be?
“Companies offer money, power, status and control — things any psychopath, white collar or not, is drawn to.”
**Sociopathic—(Characterized by by asocial or antisocial behavior). Regarding my phrase, Business has no flag, its meaning should be self evident: Business is no longer American. It is Global, displaying little interest in the American worker. Detaching itself from America’s shores and the laws that the rest of us must abide by, it sets up shop wherever the most underpaid, unprotected foreign citizen resides. In fact business is downright unpatriotic, unless of course its offshore assets are threatened, at which point it wraps itself in the American flag and demands the help of our American troops, while neatly profiting insider defense contractors. All of which is paid for with our hard earned tax money, not theirs. And the troops, so frequently misused, too often are forced to resort to American charities for various therapies, in lieu of a thankless “Thank You for your service” government.
Antisocial, no flag, no empathy. What business has is the wrong side of self-interest and a global cost/benefit analysis, as sociopathically indifferent to people as the cosmos. Adam Smith could not have foreseen the industrial revolution and The Gilded Age, nor could he have foreseen us in the digital age; so what would Smith Say? “Same ‘ol, same ‘ol, folks.”
Okay, within the “same ‘ol,” we do have our up and down economic cycles, and we are currently in a dreadful down, with no upturn in sight, reminding me of an impending Great Depression which I lived through. Recall the great post WWll years into the 70s-80s? A time of promise. The G.I. Bill, which I benefitted from, opened our universities for the first time to less well-to-do ex-G.I.s, as well as the wealthy elite, removing the exclusivity and opening previously closed doors to the working and middle classes, who now had something to cheer about– decent living wages, and for some, unlimited possibilities. Whereas today, universities get rich on exhorbitant tuitions, and banks fatten up on the outrageous loans students are forced to take on without any guarantee of a rewarding job, which more than likely will disappear oversees to South Asia. Empathy for Americans is down, folks. Way down.
So, Smith told us the way the world was, and always will be, while wishing it weren’t so. Considering that, why have I written this voice in the wilderness rant? To remind me and anyone with the patience to read this, that we are too often constrained by coldly expedient corporative ambitions infecting policies, domestic and foreign, while we narrowly remain blessed with social interventions, ever under attack, like Social Security, The G. I. Bill, Civil Rights, Medicare, Abortion Rights, and lately Affordable Care. All near-miracle hard won social achievements, which were fought against tooth and nail down through the years, by corporative libertarian Republicans and conservative Democrats. The same people who want to repeal all of it; who want to reduce and replace government with some enormous private enterprise. Greed driven people so lacking in empathy one wonders if they are borderline sociopathic. Otherwise how do they sleep at night?
Or maybe they don’t. Maybe they count one-hundred dollar bills instead of sheep.
Okay, I guess I’ve written this to remind one that empathetic social justice is not easy to maintain, that today it is dangerously vulnerable, that it requires the vigilance and perseverance of the true patriots who love the best that America has to offer.
Greed blossoms while Empathy fades like an October rose.
(To reach my HOME PAGE: hover & click the America, America… title atop this page.) COMMENTS are welcome, below.
Martin J. Ryan